Inside the Investigation of Axed Princeton Prof Joshua Katz

Princeton University ignored evidence that cut against its conclusion that the tenured professor had committed fireable offenses.

Former Princeton professor Joshua Katz /, archived through Internet Archive
June 24, 2022

Princeton University ignored extensive exculpatory evidence in its investigation of Joshua Katz, the tenured classics professor axed last month over alleged actions related to his consensual relationship with a former student.

Announcing the unceremonious dismissal, Princeton said Katz had dissuaded the former student from participating in a 2018 probe into the affair and discouraged her from "seeking mental health care" while she was an undergraduate. Both findings were based on excerpts of a voluminous email correspondence between Katz and the alumna, exchanged over 13 years, in which she sent him professions of love, allegations of "abuse," and threats of suicide.

This report is based on a review of all the materials Katz provided to the university, according to two sources with knowledge of the situation, including more than 3,000 emails between Katz and his former student. That broader correspondence suggests that Princeton seized on unrepresentative exchanges to make its determinations, cherry-picking Katz’s messages and ignoring inconsistencies in the alumna’s story.

In fact, their exchanges show the alumna declined to participate in the 2018 inquiry of her own volition and that Katz went out of his way to avoid pressuring her into that decision. "I honestly don't want to put any pressure on you whatsoever to do or not do anything," he wrote on April 11, 2018, as Princeton was investigating the affair. "The decision here has to be yours."

Katz did admit in three 2018 emails to dissuading the former student from seeking therapy her senior year. But the emails show Katz admitted to many things he did not do when the alumna accused him of wrongdoing, casting doubt on the veracity of that admission. The emails also show that, at other times, Katz told the alumna to seek psychiatric care. "Please remember that the most important thing is that you take care of yourself," he told her in March 2008. "I'm counting on you to do this—and if you feel you can't, then you *must* get help immediately."

The university’s investigative report, which formed the basis for Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber’s recommendation to dismiss Katz, ignored those emails, according to four sources who reviewed the report, one of whom provided the Washington Free Beacon with a list of the emails cited in its appendix. It also ignored a forensic evaluation of Katz by one of the most distinguished psychiatrists in the country, Frank Dattilio, who concluded that the beleaguered professor would admit to "behaviors that he never engaged in for the sake of placating" the alumna.

Katz retained Dattilio, a household name among forensic psychiatrists who has provided hundreds of psychological evaluations to federal courts and law enforcement agencies, to shed light on why he "might admit to doing things he has not done," according to a copy of the evaluation Katz shared with the Free Beacon. That evaluation offered critical context for Katz’s apparent admission, in his email exchanges with his former student, that he had discouraged her from going to therapy.

Katz was "genuinely concerned" the alumna would harm herself, Dattilio, who holds joint appointments with Harvard Medical School and the University of Pennsylvania, told Princeton. He "does not handle intense, volatile emotions very well" and will admit "to doing or saying things he has never done in order to quell emotional upheaval."

Princeton’s investigative report, according to the sources who reviewed it, dismissed Dattilio’s conclusions in a couple sentences, describing them as a "post-hoc, self-serving interpretation" of Katz’s emails.

The report’s omissions bolster the argument, made by liberals and conservatives alike, that Princeton’s investigation was a pretext to fire a tenured professor for political speech. The university disciplined Katz for the relationship in 2018 as a result of a third-party complaint, but decided to reopen an investigation after Katz panned the school’s racial politics in 2020, incurring the wrath of Eisgruber.

The second time around, his former student—a seasoned Democratic operative who worked for Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and her local party chapter—participated in the proceedings, supplying Princeton with a handful of incriminating emails.

In response, Katz turned over every exchange he could find between himself and his former student. "Anyone who reads through all of them," he wrote in a statement to the university in October 2021, "will see two deeply troubled people, not a saint and a psychopath."

The emails tell a tragic tale of unrequited love and unintended consequences, sparked by Katz’s relationship with the student in 2007. The fallout of that relationship would upend her life and haunt his own, driving them both to say they were on the brink of suicide, their emails show. Then an activist bureaucracy used Katz’s decades-old mistake to push him out of his job.

The alumna did not respond to a request for comment. Instead, the Free Beacon received a veiled legal threat from her lawyer, Jennifer Salvatore, warning: "To the extent that media outlets are participating in efforts to rehabilitate [Katz’s] reputation by violating my client’s privacy and/or defaming her, she reserves all rights and will take appropriate legal action to defend herself."

Princeton University did not respond to a request for comment.

The affair began in June 2006 and lasted until the alumna’s graduation in 2007. It was dysfunctional but unremarkable, filled with petty resentments and jejune fights: Katz did not take the alumna out for Valentine’s Day in 2007, she complained in a 2018 email. He would ignore her at events and "talk exclusively to other people."

These slights nonetheless appear to have had a profound effect on the alumna, who said in her emails that she fantasized about killing herself during the course of the affair. "A few times I went to the CVS and stood in front of the sleeping pills for a while trying to figure out how much I'd need to buy," she recalled in one April 2018 email. "I got really, really close."

She would later conclude that Katz had abused her, though Princeton’s Title IX office dismissed that charge in April 2021.

During her senior year, the alumna stopped going to therapy—but her emails offer inconsistent explanations as to why. In one message, she claims Katz discouraged her from seeing a therapist because he was afraid the university would discover the affair. But in another, she indicates she stopped going of her own volition in order to protect Katz. In a third, she suggests she became so depressed that "I couldn’t even go to therapy anymore."

Katz pointed out these inconsistencies in an April 2021 statement to the university reviewed by the Free Beacon. Princeton ignored them, according to the sources who reviewed the university's report.

The report also ignored Katz’s persistent and passionate pleas for the alumna to see a therapist, which came in response to what Dattilio described as a "deluge" of emails that, per his evaluation, revealed "emotional volatility." The affair ended when the alumna graduated in 2007, but her correspondence with Katz did not: She would accuse him of giving her "PTSD," then say she missed him. She would call him a "monster," then beg him to marry her. She would apologize for how "worthless" and "repulsive" she was, blame him for "wrecking" her life, and then ask if he was "doing OK," sometimes within hours.

The alumna would also say she was suicidal—at times implying she was moments away from killing herself—and would grow agitated if Katz didn’t respond within minutes.

With her life seemingly on the line, Katz bent over backwards to calm her down. He would apologize profusely for his "monstrous" conduct—"I’m sorry for being a monster," he wrote in November 2010—and beg the alumna to seek help.

Sometimes the alumna would accuse Katz of things he had not done, only for him to apologize anyway. In April 2018, for example, the alumna berated Katz for refusing to leave Princeton during class reunions, which she wanted to attend without running into him. Katz apologized immediately—even though dozens of emails show him coordinating with the alumna to ensure they were never on campus at the same time.

The alumna’s volatility reached a fever pitch when an anonymous third party reported the decades-old affair to Princeton in February 2018—the height of the MeToo movement.

The investigation came as an unwelcome surprise to the former student, who for months railed against the university for prying open a chapter in her life that she’d tried desperately to close.

"I didn’t want this," she wrote on March 12, 2018. "I was doing better at pushing it all down and I am so angry at whoever made this complaint."

When Princeton’s deputy dean of faculty, Toni Turano, asked the alumna if she wanted to participate in the investigation, she refused and contacted Katz to warn him it was coming. She even offered to intercede on his behalf, either by asking Princeton to call off the probe or by expressing support for "the most lenient possible penalty."

Katz said it was up to her. "Thank you for protecting me," he wrote on April 10, 2018. "I can't ask you to do it, though, especially if it's making things worse for you." The next day, he told her that he didn’t want to say anything that might pressure her one way or the other.

The alumna ultimately decided against contacting the university. When Katz told her on April 23 he would be suspended for a year without pay, she replied: "I'm sorry I couldn't fix it."

At the same time she was offering to intercede on his behalf, the alumna was sending Katz messages that oscillated between pleas for love and weekly threats of suicide. Katz himself said he contemplated "jumping" after receiving dozens of emails from her in the course of a few hours.

It was during these weeks that the alumna accused Katz of talking her out of therapy, extracting several apologies from him. The investigative report described those apologies as "clear and persuasive evidence" that Katz "acted to dissuade" the alumna "from seeing a therapist," according to Katz’s October 2021 statement. It did not address the alumna’s threats of self-harm or Katz’s pattern of false admissions.

When the alumna learned on April 30, 2018, that Katz had once attended an academic conference in the city where she lived without telling her, she changed her mind about participating in the investigation and began threatening to get him fired.

"If I can’t trust you to respect my boundaries, I’ll have to enforce them," the alumna wrote. In another email, she told Katz she would give him "a chance" to "convince me I shouldn’t."

"Please, please don't," Katz responded—a plea the university would seize on to argue he tried to discourage the former student from coming forward. Princeton ignored the context of that plea, as well as the alumna’s consistent opposition to the investigation over the preceding two months.

After the 2018 investigation, the alumna continued writing to Katz. Now, with MeToo in full swing—and with Katz becoming more vocally critical of campus progressivism—the alumna, a longtime Democratic operative, began to articulate her grievances in political terms. During the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, for example, she repeatedly likened Katz to the embattled judicial nominee. A few months later, she likened him to a Republican state defending itself against charges of racism.

"When Texas comes to you and says, of course this law that happens to disenfranchise tons of black people wasn’t *intended* to be racially discriminatory, you don’t just *believe* them," she wrote in January 2019. "Do you understand the analogy here?"

In 2020, Katz wrote a controversial essay that attacked the notion that Princeton was systemically racist. Then in February 2021, the Daily Princetonian published a story about his decades-old affair. The story also reported, based on anonymous allegations, that Katz had "behaved inappropriately" with two other former female students.

As part of his evaluation, Dattilio administered a test to gauge Katz’s propensity for predatory behavior. Katz scored in the lowest possible percentile, Dattilio said, suggesting that "he has no antisocial traits or propensities toward sexually violent or exploitative behaviors."

The alumna submitted her complaint on February 26, 2021, less than a month after the student newspaper painted Katz as a predator.

The resulting investigation had few due process protections for the accused. The university did not share the full complaint with Katz until it had already completed its report, sources involved in the process said, nor did it give his legal team a chance to cross-examine the alumna, as would have been required by Princeton’s Title IX procedures. Because the Title IX office dismissed the complaint, however, the investigation fell to the office of the dean of faculty, whose disciplinary process has fewer due process protections.

That lack of due process meant that investigators could introduce a new allegation whenever Katz provided evidence against an old one. An initial hearing, held in early April 2021, focused on the alumna’s claims that Katz discouraged her from seeing a therapist and dissuaded her from coming forward in 2018, Katz’s statements to the university show. But in a second hearing—held just weeks after Dattilio submitted his forensic evaluation—investigators took Katz to task for not being "forthcoming" during the 2018 inquiry.

By the final hearing, Katz said in his October 2021 statement, "I no longer had confidence that the investigators were being objective. They seemed to want me gone from the University."